Each year, thousands of young people take part in Nebraska 4-H programs. They use their heads, hearts and hands (and health) to learn and create.

The culmination of this process is displayed at county fairs across the state. Some participants earn the right to then show their achievements at the Nebraska State Fair.

These exhibits vie for awards with the coveted purple ribbon topping them all. Nebraska 4-H also awards special recognition at State Fair called Rainbow Recognition.

“This award is designed to recognize effort and improvement as well as creativity and uniqueness,” said Danielle Dewees, communications coordinator for the UNL Extension 4-H office.

There were more than 9,000 exhibits at the 2019 state fair. Choosing outstanding presentations was no easy task.

The fields of endeavor included works of art, educational material, photography, woodworking and even metalwork, among others. Several were notable for their ingenuity and depth. The Midwest Messenger visited the endless displays. Here are a few highlights:

Willa Fritz and Seth Brewer, both of Richardson County, earned purple ribbons for their projects at the county fair level. Both went on to state.

A second-year 4-H member, Fritz, 10, made an excellent entomology project involving butterflies, dragonflies and bees. Brewer built a picnic table as an agricultural mechanics project. The table featured a hitch so it could be towed by a truck.

Anna Hanquist, 12, of Hall County, chose to make an environmental and earth sciences project involving baby animals. She took two weeks to put all of the information together.

“I chose this topic so that we can get more help with wildlife,” she said. “Because of all the rain and storms this year we had a lot of babies with no moms.”

Hanquist said the hardest part was writing all of the facts down and then organizing it.

“The best part was putting raccoon prints on the poster board,” she said. “I learned that things that are small still take a lot of time and commitment.”

A third-generation farm girl, Hanquist has been involved with 4-H for more than three years and plans to stay involved with the organization and in agribusiness. This was not her first exhibit, either. She did a garden squash project last year. Prior to that, she had won trophies and ribbons with her dog, rabbit and horses.

The recent flooding also had an impact on Kelsey Ogle and her Beautiful Nebraska photography exhibit.

Ogle, 17, of Custer County, was rock hunting near Chadron, Nebraska, when she came across some interesting rocks. Some of them were shaped liked hearts. An avid photographer, she took a shot of one of the rocks with the sky as a backdrop. When considering her entry for the fair, that photo stood out to her as a symbol.

“I chose this photo because it reminded me of the love I have for Nebraska,” Ogle said. “I love how people care for each other, especially with all the flooding we have had this year.”

This is her ninth year in 4-H. She is a Diamond Clover recipient. Her sisters – Kristen and Kourtney – have also earned the Diamond Clover and are keen shutterbugs, too.

Ogle has submitted projects to the state fair before in photography, as well as baking and home décor. This year, she earned the Purple Ribbon at both county and state.

“The part of this project that was hard was putting into the right words what this photograph means to me,” Ogle said. “The most fun thing was rock hunting in the middle of nowhere and finding all the cool shapes and colors of rocks.”

While not planning on a career in photography, she does plan to continue taking photos. In her years of 4-H she has learned certain rules of photography, such as the rule of thirds and leading lines.

“I also learned that, sometimes, unplanned photos turn out to be the best photos,” Ogle said.

A trio of second grade students from Chase County Schools earned an Honorable Mention Ribbon for their group art project. Caroline Stretsky, Dayana Balderrama and Zoey Kelley combined their talents to create a poster board art piece.

“They were inspired by the state song that they learned when they did a state research project and learned the song in their music class,” their teacher Arlys Cupp said. “They also were very into the Nebraska Strong campaign when other parts of our state were struggling. They felt that the people in Nebraska were beautiful!”

The students had seen other students’ art projects and were anxious to create their own, Cupp said. The hardest part was not everyone being able to do rainbows, she said.

Stretsky named her creation “Rain & Sunshine” and featured a stylized cloud and ray-burst sun; Balderrama named her piece “The Sunny Flower” which depicted a multicolor sunflower; and Kelley named her artwork “Western Sunset” and had a rampant horse on a field of multihued earth tones.

“They looked at art books, pictures and online to figure out what they wanted to do,” Cupp said.

One of the most unique items at the 2019 state fair was a chess table designed and built by Lane Foltz of Greeley County.

Foltz, 11, built the table and chair from metal he found around his family’s farm. The table was a re-purposed prison table with a chess board imprinted onto its surface. The seats came from older model tractors.

The piece earned a purple ribbon at the county level and a blue ribbon at state in the science and technology category. Foltz has been welding for more than four years. He learned from his father.

“We tack welded the whole thing,” he said. “We also sanded the top of the table.”

The innovative table is destined for the family’s game room in their basement, Foltz said. For another project, he is considering making chess pieces for the table. All of this is good practice, since he is considering welding as a possible career.

Furniture is a popular focus for 4-H creativity. The amalgamation of functionality and art are very much a part of country living.

Taryn Stearns of Lincoln County displayed that combination in her spool chair project. Stearns, 12, took a wooden cable spool, some scrap wood from her family’s cattle ranch and a couple of sweatshirts and made a purple ribbon-winning entry in the home environment – recycle-redesign category.

The spool formed the base and seat of the chair. The scrap wood was used for stile and back post. The sweatshirts were re-purposed as the cushion and back rest.

“The hardest part was cutting the curve of the wood for the back,” she said. “The pieces for holding the back in place and the shelf in the bottom of the chair were difficult, too.”

Luckily, he parents are creative types, as well. Mom is a home décor enthusiast and Dad is a draftsman. Both offered direction on the project.

Stearns said the best part was getting to work with her father. She plans on using the chair in her room.

Jayda Kingston, 12, of Colfax County, also drew inspiration from her parents. Her cactus in a planter project earned her the Grand Champion award at the state fair.

The cactus was made entirely of PVC and took her more than 10 work-hours to complete. The end product was impressive.

Several feet of PVC were fit together to resemble a stylized saguaro cactus. Kingston then had to hand-glue the spines. The cactus was secured to the bottom of a rustic bucket with a toilet flange.

After painting and securing the spines, Kingston had to fill the bucket with enough river rock to keep the construct from tipping over. She also added a pinecone owl to the art piece.

“The hardest part was putting the prickles on the cactus,” Kingston said. “They had to be perfectly aligned.”

She said she enjoyed seeing the project come together, and even got a kick out of the fact that a piece belonging on a toilet could be used to make art.

“I learned you can use all types of stuff to make neat things,” Kingston said. “I enjoyed the experience and I’m glad I did it.”

McKenna Morris, 13, of Lancaster County, created a beautiful table and chairs for her project. The set was scaled for a small child. It featured a blackboard finish on the tabletop with yellow trim and seats in the shape of animals.

There was a bunny rabbit, a raccoon, a coyote and a fox chair. Each with back rests in the shape of the animals’ ears. The pieces were all wood, nailed together and hand-painted with acrylic paint.

While she has been submitting exhibits to fairs for more than five years, this was the first thing she has ever made, she said. The set earned a Purple Ribbon at both county and state level.

“I get my love of art from my grandfather,” she said. “I would love to continue to do things like this.”

The table and chairs are destined for a silent auction fund-raiser for her church and school, Morris said.

Kinzie Remmers, 15, of Thayer County, earned a Purple Ribbon with a Champion Rosette for her entry in the farm life category for art. She did a free-hand sketch of a rooster on canvas and then painted it in acrylics.

The project took her two days to complete. She said her mother made her do it. But, she is glad and grateful for the experience.

“My mom has wanted a chicken for a long time,” Remmers said. “So, I’m going to give her a chicken.”

Mackayla Wallin, 15, of Perkins County, also earned a Purple Ribbon for her artwork. Her drawing of a Labrador retriever with a pheasant feather in its mouth earned the Grand Champion award.

For inspiration, Wallin had to look no further than her long-time best friend Lucy.

“She’s been with me for nine years,” she said. “I’ve grown up with her.”

The hardest part was getting the shading just right,” Wallin said. “The details in her eyes and her fur were also challenging.”

The project took a total of about nine hours and taught the artist about being patient.

“I will benefit from this experience,” Wallin said. “I’m learning to be patient with my mistakes.”

Patience will indeed be a virtue with her future plans. While art will have a place in her life, she plans on a career in the medical field.

While earning accolades for the work they did was special, each participant said they learned something valuable from the involvement of preparing an exhibit. That would be what the 4-H experience is all about – heads, hearts, hands and health.

Jon Burleson can be reached at jon.burleson@lee.net.

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